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Top 10 Heineken Cup Winning Teams: No. 4 Leinster (2012)

Coming in at number four on our list of the greatest Heineken Cup teams is the mighty Leinster outfit of 2012.

Eighth place in our top ten went to a Leinster team who powered their way to the title through a combination of momentum, luck, and the borderline manic will to win of Brian O’Driscoll and Rocky Elsom. Michael Cheika had finally led the team to the pinnacle of European rugby, and went into his final year as coach looking to become just the second man to guide his team to back to back triumphs in the competition. As it turned out, the team’s limitations were brutally exposed in the semi-finals of the 2010 competition, and Cheika was replaced by a little known Kiwi who worked as backs coach under Vern Cotter at Clermont Auvergne.

Obviously in the years since, the appointment of Joe Schmidt has come to be seen as the most inspired in the history of Leinster, and possibly Irish, rugby. Two Heineken Cups, two RaboDirect Pro 12 titles, and an Amlin challenge Cup in Leinster blue , coupled with (so far!) a Six Nations title with the national team have followed, and it is to the second of those Heineken Cup triumphs that we turn for the 4th placed team on our list.

Unlike most other teams on this countdown, Leinster entered the 2011-2012 season in the rudest of health. Champions of Europe and with a base of home-grown players who knew nothing but success, Schmidt’s men were well equipped to do what Cheika’s team of 2 years previously could not and retain the title.

By now this great side was at its best, and all of the budding starts of 2009 had matured into bona-fide stars of the world game. Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip had Grand Slams and Lions tours under their belt, while the likes of Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Eoin Reddan were established internationals. This, added to the leadership of elder statesmen Gordon D’Arcy, captain Leo Cullen, and the phenomenal Isa Nacewa made them a truly formidable outfit.

Exactly what you get when you take a truly formidable outfit and then realise Brian O’Driscoll is at no.13 is difficult to describe, but it’s safe to say the answer is some form of lumbering rugby leviathan likely to lay waste to all before it.

No surprise then, that lay waste was exactly what Leinster did throughout most of the 2011-2012 competition.  Drawn into a pool containing Montpellier, Glasgow Warriors and Bath, the hype machine went into overdrive as the province’s supporters pondered whether they could become the first side in Heineken Cup history to go 6-0 in the pool stage and also win the trophy. Unfortunately for this particular attempt at the record books (and their placing on this list), Montpellier unset that applecart in the very first game.

Making their competition debut, the Frenchmen were roared on by a fanatical home support, and led 13-6 at the break. Francois Trinh-Duc was controlling proceedings and eased his side 10 in front shortly after. Leinster were by now famed for their comeback ability however, and a Sean Cronin try got them back in contention before Sexton showed ROG-like temperament to slot an overtime, equalising penalty.

Disaster was avoided but Leinster were eager to atone for their below par performance, and Glasgow were on the receiving end of the backlash in Dublin. In the absence of the great man, Eoin O’Malley stood in at no.13 and plundered 2 tries as Leinster wrapped up the bonus point before the break in a 38-13 victory.

The continued absence of O’Driscoll meant Fergus McFadden, rather than O’Malley stepped into the centre for the next game away to Bath, and the backline never fired as the champions relied on 6 penalties from Sexton to get them over the line in a 18-13 victory, but two poor performances from three games had the Leinster faithful worried that they had seen the best of their team the previous year.

Their fears were spectacularly allayed in the return fixture six days later, as the champions, with O’Malley restored to the centre, ran in 7 tries in a 52-27 hammering.2 tries from Luke Fitzgerald were the highlight of the game as Sexton kicked 6 conversions, a drop goal and scored a try for a haul of 20 points, only missing out on the full house of scores by never attempting a penalty. Although not faced by top notch defending, Leinster’s play in this game deserves the addition of this video, not least as it is one of countless examples of Schmidt’s ability to ruthlessly expose any weakness in his opposition.

Qualification was duly assured when, in the continued absence of O’Driscoll and the enforced absence of Sexton, Glasgow were put to the sword 23-16 thanks to the boot of McFadden and Rob Kearney’s fourth try in the competition. A relatively weakened team, most notable for Ian Madigan getting his first Heineken cup start, made short work of Montpellier at home, with McFadden’s boot and tries from Kearney, Healy and Sean O’Brien ensuring easy passage as pool winners and top seeds.

Their pool record ensured a home quarter final against the Cardiff Blues, a team for whom it is now believed the term “lambs to the slaughter” was, in fact, invented for. With all of their stars, O’Driscoll included, back in harness, Leinster also welcomed into Heineken Cup action their new, short term signing Brad Thorn. The legendary All-Black solved Leinster’s only real problem position, as the young Devin Toner had not yet made his mark beside Leo Cullen in the second row.  O’ Driscoll announced his return with one of the defining tries of the Schmidt era following sumptuous work by Fitzgerald and Sexton, and Kearney added two tries to take his tally to an impressive seven as the champions strolled into the last four.

It was there, however, that they would face their greatest challenge, and enjoy possibly their sweetest ever victory. Facing Clermont in France was the ultimate challenge for any Heineken Cup side in the late 2000s, and although the fixture was moved away from the Stade Marcel Michelin, 100 miles down the road to Bordeaux, the task was still deemed impossible by many. The rivalry which the teams had built up over the previous thre years had become the most intense in Europe, and the time seemed right for Clermont to finally shake the Leinster Monkey off their backs.

The first half went the way of the men in yellow, as some uncharacteristic mistakes from Leinster’s star men allowed Clermont a 12-6 halftime lead. Kearney however, in the form of his life, was not to be denied and sliced through the Clermont defence in the early minutes of the second half to set up Healy for what would prove the games only try. Five Minutes later, the man from Cooley slotted a monster drop goal, and Leinster led by 19-15 with 15 minutes remaining.

Those final 15 minutes were, perhaps, the greatest achievement of this great Leinster team. Wave after wave of Clermont attack broke off the 15 bastions of blue defence, and with five minutes left Clermont entered the Leinster 22, which they would not leave again before the final whistle.

Leinster were almost spent from the amazing effort, and their hearts were finally broken when Wesley Fofana edged his way over the line, to send the home fans into raptures. The elation was short lived however, and when the referee indicated his decision to defer to the TMO, hope was rekindled in Leinster hearts. Miraculously, Fofana was found to have knocked the ball on in the final throes of his attempt to score, and although Leinster lost the resultant scrum, Clermont would never get as close again, Julian Bonnaire finally being held up by O’Brien for a penalty which Sexton dispatched to the stand to give Leinster their greatest victory. The game is recounted in more detail elsewhere on this site by a journalist of remarkable talent:

Leinster had done the unthinkable, and surmounted the greatest obstacle in their quest for the elusive two-in-a-row, but there was, in fact, still a final to be played. The only ever all-Irish final of the Heineken Cup, in fact.

Ulster, led by the seemingly unstoppable Stephen Ferris, had battled through the other side of the draw to earn the right to face Leinster in Twickenham. No doubt inspired by a record 81,774 attendance, a fired up Ulster dominated the opening ten minutes, but only had three points from the boot of Ruan Pienaar to show for it.

Leinster soon got a hold on the game however, and reigning European Player of the year O’Brien plundered a try before setting up Healy to give his side a comfortable lead. The forwards were again to the fore when Leinster won a lineout inside the Ulster 22, and the ensuing rolling maul was soon dragged down for penalty try which ended the game as a contest at 21-6.

Amazingly, two more front rows, substitutes Sean Cronin and Heinke Van Der Merwe, added further tries and Leinster completed the biggest ever final victory without a back crossing the whitewash. Sexton again top scored kicking 15 points towards the 42-14 victory. Having weathered the early Ulster storm and marshalled the rampaging Ferris, Leinster met little other resistance, and made their superior quality around the park count to truly embarrass their provincial rivals on the biggest stage of all.

Many will feel that the Leinster side of 2012 deserves a higher placing on this list, and the arguments in their favour are many. Unbeaten, with the most points scored and biggest final victory, the truly decimated all before them in 2012. Playing some jaw-dropping rugby when the opportunity arose, and mixing it with incredibly effective, clinical rugby when required, they were one of the most well rounded club teams to ever take the field.

Counting against them, however, was something essentially out of their control. The incredibly easy nature of their draw meant they were never really tested until the semi-finals. Granted they really pulled out that performance when they needed to, they were able to time their peak for the semi-finals for early in the year, aware that the competition would be a cake walk up until then. Added to this the fact that Ulster didn’t turn up made the final a real damp squib.

Had that legendary effort in the game against Clermont been the final, or had they managed to defeat Montpellier in the opening game to secure that 9-0 season they may have been ranked higher, but there is certainly no shame in a 4th placing for that will live long in the memory as the only Irish team to secure a Heineken Cup 2-in-a-row, and the only team to secure a 3rd title in 4 years.

Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.